Business objectives are like underwear.
Everyone has them, but not everyone wants to talk about them. Why not? Could it be that solutions are so much easier to talk about?
People often start projects with a solution in mind. "I need a million dollar grant," a nonprofit client told me. "Why?" I asked. He looked at me like it was a silly question. And he was almost right - he was feeding starving children all over the world. Who wouldn't see the merit of adding a million dollars to his organization?
Business objectives will pass the desert island test.
You can take a million dollars to a desert island, and it will do almost nothing for you. You might be able to burn it long enough to keep you warm for a day or so - if it were in cash. That's about it. However, if we can list the resources that the client needs and add up those costs, we get closer to the main objective. For a soup kitchen, we might list kitchen staff, building materials, food supplies, utilities, and travel. Now we have a plan that is at least one level of clarity better than we had before - we could definitely take these things to a desert island and get some business done.
So what will we do with these lower level resources, once assembled on the desert island? What are they expected to accomplish? These expectations, once defined, are the true business objectives. We can assign maximums to food costs, minimums to production levels of kitchen staff, and forecast the growth of the beneficiary population. It's hard to assign expectations to cash.
Money - like staff and other resources - is usually a means to an end. A solution is usually designed to fulfill a set of objectives - and asking "why?" will tell you whether that set has been defined. If the client had no idea how he was going to spend the proposed grant money, for example, that project would be in trouble already!
Why do we need to see the underwear?
The business objective is where the actual business problem or opportunity lies. There are several reasons to keep this in focus:
But before all of that, we need scope definition. This tells everyone the most important things:
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you trace each requirement to a business objective, you’ll find…
You get what you need!
Which of these standards do you shoot for when you’re planning your next steps as a leader?
Next you’ll tell me you want them all.
Of course, every leader would like to be well balanced – who wouldn’t want to master all of these at once? There’s nothing wrong with any of them. However, what happens when we try to achieve all of them?
I realized two major problems after several failed years of leadership, chasing after these standards like Kleenex in the wind. This was a period of my life which I now call “Professional Vertigo.”
Problem #1: Your Character (and Your Situation) Doesn’t Naturally Include All of Them
There is very little overlap among all of these standards when they are pursued individually. Most leaders have one or two that they favor. For example, some good marketing people may use their talent and tactics to be effective (produce favorable results) and use their network to be strategic (form conditions that create long term favorable results) but not include much logic or fairness (they use leads based on intuition, which are hit and miss, and fire everyone who doesn’t bring in a high quota to protect the margin). Or you might see a startup entrepreneur whose highest priorities are to be strategic (creative with design, intuitive with the market) and fair (judicial and hospitable with the talent pool), and almost nothing depends on producing results now. The highest goal is to develop a useful product with long term marketability.
Have you ever noticed that when you aspire to all of these, you usually aspire to one at a time? That’s usually how you can detect your true priorities. Your first one or two you never have to think about – and no one complains about. Have you ever made (or executed) a plan of action and then heard, “That’s not fair!” or “That will never work.” If you’re hearing any one or two things (or more) consistently, those may be your lower priorities.
It’s even more complicated when these characters enter the picture! Just when you think you might have finally pinned down something that is logical, fair, effective, and possibly even strategic, here come…
Of course, if you have a team, you have to motivate them – and some people are only motivated by things that are fun to do! That can be frustrating for power players, data geeks and other left brained leaders, but it exists as a constraint nonetheless. People are people. And of course, you have the Miss (and Mr.) Manners’ of the world, who keep us all in line. Some of the geniuses out there can cure polio but will offend everyone in every meeting in the first five minutes without even knowing it. Think Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.
It’s pretty much impossible to form a plan of action that is innately all of these things. Something’s gotta give.
So why is it so frustrating trying to hit all of these standards at once? That’s a secret you can only learn from years of hitting your head against many walls. But if you stop and think about it, you can realize the answer as soon as you want, even after the first wall:
Problem #2: The Standards Keep Changing
The answer is in where the feedback is coming from. If you keep delivering presentations, or announcing new policies or processes, or closing client meetings, and thinking to yourself, “that wasn’t as effective as I would have liked,” then that’s positive self-evaluation. However – if you’ve delivered the best plan of action that you intended to deliver, by design, and the feedback you consistently receive is that you’re not hitting several of these categories, then take heart. You’re probably a human being. Why? You’re being measured by other people’s standards. Which are always going to change. Because they are other people. The problem is that there are so many other people that even if we select only a handful of respected people whose opinions we should consider, we’re still beholden to multiple points of reference that will be in constant conflict. In addition to those, we will also always be beholden to our team, or clients, and to our direct manager (and/or stakeholders). Of course if our job gets stressful enough, our family (spouse, mom, opinionated sister) will undoubtedly have feedback as well. How many points of reference are we up to now? 100? 1000?
I’m calling this “professional vertigo” because it’s similar to the sensation of spinning that you get when your head doesn’t have a solid reference point in space, so it doesn’t know which way is forward. Every time it checks the place it thinks is a reference point, it moves. So it just gives up and thinks everything is moving all the time. Which makes you throw up.
This is not a new concept – Stephen Covey talks about “ethical vertigo” in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. It’s a similar concept – losing your sense of reference – in that case, between right and wrong.
So what’s the solution?
I Found That I’d Rather Be Right
Given all six of those standards, I found out a while ago that I had to make a choice in my personal life that dramatically affected my professional life. I would rather be right than anything else. I don’t mean “right” as in “the winner”. I mean, I’d rather do the right thing. I found this out the same way I found out how much these standards can compete – high stakes conflict. When it comes down to the toughest decisions where the most is on the line, most leaders’ true priorities are revealed. In those cases, I believe that is very often that only one of these standards can be favored as a true goal. If my goal is truly to be fair during a layoff, for example – if I make ruthlessly sure than everyone has equitable treatment regardless of the time and cost – that is a vastly different plan of action than a goal of effectiveness, which would create a plan to return the best financial conditions. An attempt to balance even those two is almost always going to create conflict – and that’s only two!
However, operating by a code of ethical standards – making “Right” the goal – has two benefits. It solves both problems.
Benefit #1: “Right” Includes Way More Than You Can
Remember that tiny area in the middle that never hit all six targets? Good news – you now have a bigger target. Right is not always socially acceptable and it’s not always fun, but it definitely can be. And also –
· It’s always logical
· It’s always effective
· It’s always fair
It’s always strategic
What’s the deal? How can you magically hit all four standards at once when previously it was hard to even combine two of them in a high stakes scenario? Mostly, because of benefit #2.
Benefit #2: “Right” Fixes the Vertigo
“Right” fixes the reference points by fixing the standards. Right, by definition, comes with its own standards. Which means two things for you:
· Logical, fair, effective and strategic now mean new things
o Instead of “Logical according to me or you, it’s logical according to what is right”
o Instead of “Fair according to me or you, it’s fair according to what is right”
o Instead of “Effective according to what you or I want, it’s effective according to what should happen”
o Instead of “Strategic according to what you or I want to happen long term, it’s strategic according to what should happen”
·You don’t have to be pulled in different directions by everyone else’s feedback because you know why you did what you did. You have a set of standards by which you chose to operate.
Does that mean that I can never accept critical feedback?
Not according to my definition of “Right”. My set of standards says that the wisest people always continue to learn. This means that I can evaluate feedback against my standards and discern which criticism is valuable and which can be disregarded. Because, again, if I accept every single point of criticism with no filter, they will always contradict each other and I will be right back where I started. I have to establish a reference point.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), it’s your definition of “Right” that can make you or break you. But once you set your standards in the right place, and they are well defined, they will serve you well.
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